Oct. 23, 2021

213. Sailing to Freedom with Dr. Timothy D. Walker

213. Sailing to Freedom with Dr. Timothy D. Walker
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In May 1796, an enslaved woman named Ona Judge fled the presidential household in Philadelphia and escaped to freedom on a ship headed for New Hampshire. Judge’s successful flight was one of many such escapes by the sea in the 18th and 19th centuries. Enslaved people boarded ships docked in ports great and small and used coastal water ways and the ocean as highways to freedom. We often learn about the Underground Railroad in school, but what about its aquatic component? On today’s episode, Dr. Timothy D. Walker joins Jim Ambuske to discuss his new edited volume, Sailing to Freedom: Maritime Dimensions of the Underground Railroad, which was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2021. Walker is a Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and along with the contributors to Sailing to Freedom, Walker guides us towards new horizons in our quest to better understand this history. 


Sailing to Freedom with Dr. Timothy D. Walker

Interview published: October 23, 2021

Transcript created: October 24, 2021

Host: Jim Ambuske, Center for Digital History, Washington Library at Mount Vernon

Guest: Dr. Timothy D. Walker, Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth

Note: This transcript was produced using Descript, an artificial intelligence software. It has been edited to correct errors in the transcription, such as names, but has not been subject to significant clean up.

Jim Ambuske: I was thinking though, as I was reading your book and I having grown up in Midwest, the underground railroad is a very powerful part of that history. And I grew up not far from the Ohio river, which was typically seen as the division between slavery and freedom and a lot of houses I know, built in the 19th century had secret compartments where individuals were held or not held, but it, as they made their way north, probably on the way to Canada, I hadn't really thought much about waterways as a means of escape.

And, you know, beyond the Ohio, I thought we might start by painting a picture of what people usually think of when the term underground railroad is heard.

Timothy D. Walker: Like you. I, uh, I also grew up near the Ohio river. I'm from Southwest Ohio. I was actually born in Detroit. Uh, were of course there were a lot of underground railroad crossings and I grew up outside of Dayton, Ohio, and my upbringing too, had a lot to do with the terrestrial side of the underground railroad.

There were lots of stories that circulated around in the area where I grew up about. And clandestine meetings and holding places for four fugitives. I never really questioned that until I moved to the east coast for graduate school. And I came to Boston to work on my ma and PhD and at the time, so I was working very much towards the subject of early modern European history and colonization. And I decided that if I wanted to know about that subject, I probably ought to know something a bit more viscerally about how sailing works. And so like many mid-westerners I started crewing on historic sailing vessels on the east coast. Maybe not knowing very much about it.

You find a lot of Midwesterners in the tall ship fleet, because I think they don't really grow up understanding just how dangerous the ocean can be and what's involved. But anyway, I started sailing out of mystic, Connecticut on large schooner. And continue to do that for the next 30 years and teaching and board them.

And then it became clear to me that through a variety of ways that the underground railroad should be rightly thought of not only as a terrestrial phenomenon, but also as something that happened very actively along the Eastern seaboard. And this became most clear to me when I started working on a project with a local historian hearing.

The president of the new Bedford historical society, whose name is Lee Blake. And about 12 years ago, she came to me with the idea to apply for a national endowment of the humanities landmarks in American history award to teach about New Bedford's role in the underground railroad to American kindergarten through 12th grade teachers.

So we put together a program and we're successful in our bid for funding. And we got to do that program three times between 2011 and 2015. And in the process of doing that, we brought in speakers who were specialists on people fleeing by sea, along the Eastern seaboard. And what came together was a kind of mosaic of pictures that taken collectively really showed that there was this rather understudied and underappreciated component to the underground railroad, which was entirely salt water along the east coast of the United States heading northwards. So after having done that for several years, I determined that I would take upon myself to even though I wasn't really a specialist in this at the beginning. I determined that I, that someone needed to do a book about this. And because I had been the primary investigator of the, of the national endowment for the humanities program, I decided to do this myself and to edit the volume.

Jim Ambuske: Well, that's really cool that your personal experience selling a board ship and learning how to get your sea legs after being landlocked. Early years of your life kind of inspired part of this project will tell us a little bit more about those maritime dimensions and of the underground

Timothy D. Walker: One of the things that you know was sort of a jumping off point or a point of departure for us in the national endowment for the humanities program was when we first started doing this, it was not too long after Jeff bolster had come out with his book Blackjacks about sailors of color in the American merchant and military Marine in the late 18th and early 19th century.

And what Jeff showed in his book very clearly that a very large percentage of sailors on American ships were people of African descent on the order of nearly 20%. Not quite depending on the period that we're talking. Our point of departure was that. And knowing that there were a lot of people already working at sea who were usually Freeman of color, but might been.

People who were still enslaved and turning their sailors wages over to their owners and gleaning enormous experience from their opportunity to travel around. But what became clear in the course of then teaching about the underground railroad and how people successfully fled to the more, what. Became the important and key thing to understand is that in the south, most of the waterfront labor virtually all of the waterfront labor is enslaved.

African-Americans usually men. So what are they doing? They are moving the plantation, produced crops by water, down title rivers, and streams to small harbors and ports, loading them on larger vessels. Taking them to major ports for the plantation produce goods are then put on seagoing vessel. For shipment to markets and all of that labor, the crewing of small boats, carrying cargo, the waterfront labor to load and unload vessels, the maintenance of vessels, the crewing of service boats within the Harbor that will be lighters to load and unload.

Ferry boats, a lot of fishing in the rivers of the south and in the near offshore fisheries oystering, all this is being done by enslaved Waterman and because the men who are working on these coastal vessels and on the waterfronts are gathering strategic knowledge. Then they can use, they can put it to use as they plan and implement their plans for escape.

They learn the rhythms of the sea. They understand that ships have to sail with the tide. They look at the weather and they understand when a northbound vessel is going to leave port. They know when it's getting ready to clear customs, they often are doing the work of [00:06:00] loading and offloading their cargoes.

They understand the nautical hazards, the maritime reefs, and shallows. Shallow waters that can be dangerous to vessels. And consequently, they gain the knowledge that allows them to fleet the north aboard ocean going vessels. When we have to understand that jurisdiction of any waterfront municipality and indeed the United States customs service.

Only extended out three miles from shore. And so a ship that leaves a Southern Harbor is very, very quickly out of the reach of any legal authorities. And so someone who made it aboard a ship as a stowaway or with the cooperation of a northbound group, they would be very quickly in a place at sea where they were unlikely to be intercepted.

If you compare that to the experience of. It's fleeing over land, even just a couple of days, journey from a free state, the chances of being detected and recaptured and reinsulate on land were orders of magnitude greater than being recaptured. Once got out to sea.

Jim Ambuske: That leads me to wonder why our emphasis on the Overland routes to freedom, as opposed to these maritime dimensions.

When as you say, and slave workers who are working down at the docks, the waterfronts have acquiring all this knowledge. They're making connections with crews who are sailing. And yet we're focusing on essentially the border states, you know, crossing from Kentucky into Ohio and moving further north.

Timothy D. Walker: So I muse a little bit about that in the introduction of the book.

These are sort of impressionistic ideas, that reason why this has fallen out of American historiography about the underground railroad in the 20th century anyway, is that most historians don't have a merits on dimension to their training. Focus on maritime concepts and dynamics, and so far as it intersects with land.

And, and so a lot of the historians are simply not trained to look at maritime archives and to appreciate how the movement of all goods in the 19th century, along the Eastern seaboard. Yeah. So most of what was then the United States depended on maritime effort. There weren't very many roads. There were very, very few bridges and river crossings of the, of the main inlets along the Eastern seaboard.

And so the quickest and most efficient way to move large, heavy bulk goods was. And that remained true until the completion of major highways along the east coast. So that's one reason. But if you look at older considerations of the underground railroad William Siebert's book that comes out in 1898 has a very well known and often reproduced map of the underground railroad that he traced through primary sources and through interviews with people who had experienced it.

He includes underground railroad routes at sea on his map. And he also included. Fair amount of information about it in the interviews that he reproduces in the book. Also, if you look at the journal of the underground railroad, for lack of a better word station master in Philadelphia, this, what would he publish is shortly after the American civil war is illustrated and many of the illustrations depict incidents that happen at sea or on imports of ocean with ocean going vessels being searched for fugitives.

The late 19th century accounts of the underground railroad are very much aware of the maritime can call, but you just don't see it much in the 20th century.

Jim Ambuske: That's really interesting because we, especially early America is we write a lot about transatlantic trade tracing, the connections between ports of like Norfolk and Virginia and London and Liverpool, places like that.

But the intercoastal. It doesn't get as much attention as it probably should. And therefore it seems like we've, we've probably missed this element of the underground railroad. I'm curious about geographic distinctions and how that factors into an enslaved persons calculations to flee. Is it the case that you see more enslaved people fleeing from what becomes eventually the deep south in the 19th century? Or is it fairly even across places like Virginia Charleston, Savannah, even down on.

Timothy D. Walker: The real concentrations of escapes tend to happen around major ports, at least prior to the civil war. Once there are blockading union vessels along the Southern coast and beginning in 1861, then you get a lot of people swinging.

It's a matter of debate about whether or not that should rightly be referred to as the underground railroad once the war begins. But point is is that once you have places to flee to and the union blockading vessels become a major destination for African-Americans who are freeing enslavement, then they start to go there.

Prior to the war, wherever there were concentrations of northbound shipping that would be leaving Southern port and going more or less directly in a matter of just few days, traveling up the Eastern seaboard, following the Gulf stream, it's a fairly quick trip. And once you're a board, a northbound. You don't have to do much.

You just are there for the ride. So you don't have to hide. You don't have to evade posses of slave catchers. You don't have to worry about dogs once you're out of the hardware. So the concentrations tend to happen from big ports and consequently, many of the chapters of the book focus on ports like Charleston, South Carolina, and Hampton roads, Virginia.

And the exception I would say is in the Northern Chesapeake. Where you do have a kind of option to combine both maritime and Overland escapes to cross into it.

Jim Ambuske: And as you were talking earlier about slave narratives and sources from the 19th century, late 18th, early 19th century, that talk a great deal about maritime dimensions of the underground railroad.

Something popped in my head. Surely if the enslaved people are aware that. Most certainly the people from whom they are fleeing are definitely aware. And do we have a sense of how this maritime avenue shapes laws, how state governments respond to insulate people who are fleeing or how the enslavers themselves are reacting to this?

Timothy D. Walker: There are a number of really important indications that, that show us just how aware the Southern owner class and the administrators and politicians who are in charge of Southern municipalities. They're very much aware that this is a huge economic problem. This represents a loss of capital for them and represents a loss of really valuable property and the loss of productivity for.

They're waterfront labor force. And the way that we know that is that they are enacting both state laws and municipal regulations that are designed to stop this sort of sieve of people fleeing regularly out of, out of Southern ports and harbors. So one of the things that they do, they create commissions and commissioners who are empowered to search vessels before they leave Harbor specifically for fugitive.

They have, in some cases, stations are set up to fumigate vessels so that they can drive out anyone who might be hiding below. Or another thing that they do is they're terribly worried as the 19th century continues on that, that free black Mariners who are serving a board Northern ships and who has Siemens protection papers to keep them from being harassed as free black men.

They're worried that. Population of free black Mariners is helping to drive escapes by sort of encouraging their enslaved brother into, to get on board ships and come north. Was this happening? Almost certainly. Can we prove it? Probably not. Because most of this activity is after all illegal and clandestine and people don't really believe a lot of evidence that they're doing this unless they are recounting it well after the war, uh, when they're no longer in any danger, the penalties and here's another set of legislation.

That tells us just how dire the problem was the penalties for assisting slaves to escape by any means. But for a free black man was in North Carolina. Anyway, it was punishable by execution. Uh, and the penalties were very, very high for anyone who is caught, assisting enslaved individuals to. The other way that we know about this is that in an attempt to recover their human property, that is flood owners would put notices in newspapers in very large numbers.

So we have something like 200,000 runaway slave ads that are extant in early American newspapers and slowly they are being gathered together in various archives. Currently they're sort of. Dispersed in a number of archives around the country, but there is a project that I'm happy to talk about. One of our contributors is working on a project to gather all these together, but let me talk about the ads a bit before we talk about that.

What a typical runaway slave fugitive ad will do is it'll give it in a short paragraph. It'll give a description of the person who is runaway will tell something about their, their gender and their age and, um, and from where they, they left and who owned them. But what's most valuable to researchers, is it frequently will say what the owner suspect happened.

And very frequently we see references to people having been observed, exchanging information with botnet on the water, having been observed, hanging around the waterfront. It is presumed. They're looking for a ship. Anyone who has. Maritime skill or maritime experience. This is noted in the ad because the assumption is they're going to use their maritime knowledge to get away.

So again and again, and again, we find ads that make reference sometimes to specific vessels that are suspected of having helped in the masters of this. By the way another piece of legislation is that ships, masters, who were thought to have been responsible for leaving with enslaved people on board often had to either prove that they didn't have any hand in that, or they were made to pay fines.

So there are a number of ways that we know about how this.

Jim Ambuske: Tim. You've already mentioned that this is an edited collection and referenced a contribution by Megan. Jeffrey's here at the digital project. We'll talk about that here in a minute, but you actually have the distinction of being at least my first guest who has edited a volume of essays.

And I wanted to talk a little bit about that process. It came out of your NIH collaborations that came out of your experiences, working on ships and diving in deeper to this topic. Tell us a little bit about the kind of process of putting together an edited collection. It's very much different than a monograph and that you are, you are the ship captain of a volume will say, but you've got a crew who's working for you and contributing in various ways.

And what is that like? I've never done one. So I'm selfishly asking for my. Well,

Timothy D. Walker: When I initially pitched the idea to a UMass press. Uh, they were very excited about the project and I was able to say to them, look, I've got a number of really wonderful scholars that I've come to know through having done the national program.

I'd love to do. This project focused on this specific topic. And the chief editor asked me if, um, if I would be interested in maybe making it a monograph and doing it myself. And I said, you know that it's kind of you to ask what there are these scholars who've been working on this in a quite focused way.

And I've really liked to. An opportunity for a number of people to really lend their voice to this volume. So if you look at the contributors and they're all just really wonderful gifted scholars, but they're at different stages in their careers, some of them were quite young right at the beginning. And some of them are rather seasoned and they've been around for a while and they look at different [00:17:00] geographical areas and they have different areas of expertise and approaches to how they do this.

So the edited volume allows for the display of scholarship that I couldn't do as an individual. And it also gives a greater breadth to the volume that I could never do because it required archival work and a huge number of places that simply wouldn't have been available to me as a single scholar working on the subject.

So I felt very strongly that we should call on the expertise. The people who had been contributing to the national endowment for the humanities program. And then also I sort of recruited a few other people to fill in holes of areas that needed to be covered in the volume to answer your specific question about how to go about being an editor.

I found that if I was really clear and produced written documents about what was expected, that laid out the parameters of the book very clearly. Framed the main questions and framed the main thesis of the book in a way that was clear to all of my contributors who work with me and then gave them an opportunity to kind of discuss it.

We through email chains where you talked a little bit about how the volume will be set up, but once that was done, setting clear goals about target dates for drought. Setting up opportunities for them to create an advanced guides for the index key terms that they wanted included in the index that would've come out of their contributions.

And it all went really remarkably smoothly

Jim Ambuske: Yeah, I've heard a lot of horror stories where the editors are just not brow beat. In some level of beg people to finish their essays. And it's, it's tough, right? Sometimes, you know, people that things change and things come up, but I'm glad that you had a pretty smooth sailing. It sounds like for this experience,

Timothy D. Walker: there was, uh, period where the first drafts were finished and I was sending back my first round of editorial comments.

And, uh, there were a couple of scholars involved in the project who, who hadn't written for this type of a volume before, or hadn't published anything in a while. In those cases, I had to be a bit more of a mentor editor and make suggestions about ways that the authors could develop their essays. One of the most innovative essays is by Elysa Engelman who works at mystic Seaport.

I had known Elysa for a long time. We had overlapped in graduate school and her contribution ended up being one of those that was really highly praised by the reviewers, the anonymous reviewers, because she approached it in an innovative way as a public historian and tried to look at. The issue of abolitionists in Eastern Connecticut and about how they're kind of on the periphery of the underground railroad in some ways.

But if you look at the underground railroad as a maritime experience, then they're potentially right in the thick of it and the evidence that they lost behind and how to interpret that for a public history audience. Like you have haven't mystic secret, I think together Elysa and I thought about how best to present that material, because it was so different from some of the more straightforward historical narratives that you find in the other chapter.

Jim Ambuske: That's fascinating. So you would see this as a very much a collaborative process. It's not simply you putting out the CFP as it were the call for papers, and then sending back some editorial notes later, but really working with authors in various ways to bring the, the volume together in a cohesive way.

But it also oftentimes will be in our writing and we'll we think we've got it, but then somebody else will see something that actually helps that essay become even stronger. And it's a great way of working with our people. Sometimes this is a very solitary enterprise, but it's fun.

Timothy D. Walker: I felt very much that this was a collaborative process.

We, I encouraged the authors to share around their manuscripts and every author is different. So we will prefer to do it very much as a solitary project, but using their own context and their own networks to have critical readings of the work submitted and the degree to which I interacted with the authors.

Everyone was different. Some I played a much more active role as editor and others. I didn't. What was consistent is that we went through probably three rounds of editorial plummets before the manuscripts went to the publisher. And I think that really helped the process as well. Now this was all happening pre COVID, probably as the volume will being produced during the year, when everything was shut down, it might've been a quite different volume.

Jim Ambuske: Yeah, it could have turned out very differently, but in the case where it wasn't in COVID, I'm sure people had the opportunity to go back and check sources if they need to. Whereas last year that was largely a no-go.

Timothy D. Walker: We were all kind of stuck with our own home libraries and we found ourselves emailing colleagues for PDFs and things that we didn't have.

And we get by one way or another.

Jim Ambuske: Yeah, you sure do. Well, we talked a little bit about mystic Seaport, but tell us a little bit more about some of the other contributions in the volume. What are some of the things that folks found.

Timothy D. Walker: The book is organized geographically. We start in the south with a great chapter by Michael Thompson, but it looks at Charleston, South Carolina, and touches a little bit on Northern Georgia and stuff.

And then we followed the maritime route up the Eastern seaboard and David Cecelski's chapter looks at North Carolina and coastal North Carolina. Then we have two wonderful chapters by Cassandra Newby-Alexander and Cheryl LaRoche. One of them looking at Maryland, the LaRoche's chapter Annapolis and the Chesapeake bay area.

And Cassandra looks at Virginia and the big ports on the Virginia seaboard. And then there's a really interesting chapter by a young scholar, Mirelle Luecke , who looks at the port of New York. A transition point to kind of entree for people escaping because New York wasn't a safe place. Slavery still existed legally in New York state into the 1830s.

And it was an active place for bounty hunters who were trying to reinstate people and bring them back to the south. And so people usually try to get through New York as quickly as they could if they were not legitimately free and could prove it in a couple of the chapters that I think are really.

They're all interesting, but to pick out a couple, um, Alyssa's chapter does a good job with looking at the agreement family and tying that to public history, Lynn Travers, who focused on new Bedford communities of color and what they were doing and where they were living in new Bedford. Massachusetts has a number of distinctions beyond being the center of wailing and being known as the fugitive alter for people who were fleeing enslavement, they sound a welcoming community and a safe community.

But no one was ever taken back into slavery and like Boston and a few other Northern cities. It also had the highest percentage per capita of people of color in the city of any Northern city, something on the order of six and almost six and a half percent in the 1840s and fifties. So that's pretty high and looking at the census.

A very large number, 30% of those people identified their birthplace as the south. So if you're a person of color of African descent in the north, in the 1840s and fifties, and you identify your birthplace, as you know, someplace in the coastal Carolina or someplace south of the Mason-Dixon line, chances are chances are pretty high that you are.

They stopped doing that, by the way. After 1850, after the fugitive slave act of 1850, people started to obscure their origins and say that they were born in Philadelphia or born in New York, even though previous documents, if you can trace them, you can see that they actually gave their birthplace as somewhere in the south.

But what Len was able to do, Len Travers, who was a colleague of mine at UMass Dartmouth, uh, he showed, he was able to map where people lived using city directory. From new Bedford in the 1830s that identified people with color in the director. You'd also identified not only where they were living, but what their job was, their primary source of income.

And so he could make a really interesting study of what the black population in new Bedford were doing for work and where they were. To finish the volume of sort of the capstone chapter, if you will, was focusing on new possibilities for research and the potential for research that is growing because of digitization.

So what we have at Cornell university, Ed Baptist, who is the main Cornell professor in the history department organizing this effort is doing a program called Freedom on the Move, which is attempting to put all of the runaway slave ads into one big searchable database. And they're probably 20% of the way there right now.

Maybe a little more. It's been a while since I checked, but what they were finding is that a very, very large percentage of these slave ads that they did have in their database showed a maritime component to the escape. There's really no way to give a quantitative assessment of how many people comparatively escaped by land or by sea.

The numbers just aren't there. You don't have reliable data. The activity was illegal and clandestine. So people. But what we can say is that you can quantify the numbers in the runaway ads and they're high, but they're currently complete. And you can also say that for practical reasons, almost every document in case of someone who escaped by land escape from somewhere relatively close to a free state. They're just not traveling very far, no more than a few days walk at the most. So the great majority of escapes by land, by contrast, you can say that the great majority of escapes from the far south, the coastal far south, almost all of them. And so that then sets up this dichotomy of studying the subject where you can say with some certainty that the maritime side of the underground railroad is extremely important.

If you want to understand escapes from certain regions of the south and anywhere from coastal Florida, north, north, east, Florida, all the way up to the Chesapeake, most people are escaping.

Jim Ambuske: Well, I mean, that makes total sense, too. Especially as you were talking about the proximity to coastal landscapes or more Northern border states, it would be very dangerous for someone trying to escape from central Alabama, trying to get north and, you know, walking directly north, or probably even Western Georgia.

I mean, then you get to the coast of Georgia, but there might be some parts where it might make more sense just to head north of Atlanta. And that's, that's a lot of territory to get through and a lot of risk you're taking.

Timothy D. Walker: There are some tributary rivers that feed into say the Ohio or the Mississippi that people near in Northern Kentucky might've used those, but they're only navigable for a short way.

And they're good for canoes. The issue is compounded by if, if you're an Overland escapee, then you have to steal a canoe and that's maybe going to be noticed or steal some kind of boat. And then once you get to the Ohio, would you have the knowledge. To safely cross the Ohio, you know, in the spring when it's flooding, it's, that's a major impediment.

So I don't think that very many people escaped by water in interior waterways. There were some cases certainly of people stowing away on northbound steamboats, along the Mississippi, for example, carrying cotton bales and so on. But the problem with that, from the point of view of someone who's actively trying to make an escape is that steamboats stop frequently.

There are lots of navigational hazards in the Mississippi. And you're never far from a port or a riverbank where someone who's. It can be put off and hand it over to authorities to be returned to their owners. So I just don't think that it was as viable and as safe and as efficient and the skateboard as escaping on a seagoing vessel along east coast.

Jim Ambuske: and that was Megan jefferies that wrote that last chapter is that.

That's correct?

Timothy D. Walker: Yes. Uh, and she is currently a doctoral candidate Cornell.

Jim Ambuske: Oh, that's great. That you've got that wide career diversity in the volume. It sounds like, as you mentioned earlier, that's pretty fantastic. And as we were talking about these slaves ads, you know, that strikes me as something would be really great to use in the classroom.

And I'm wondering then how you hope readers in general will use this volume. What were your goals for it at the end of the day? And are you looking for people to take it into the classroom or supplement their own knowledge with.

Timothy D. Walker: One of the instructions that I gave to my authors was that we wanted to pitch this to a general audience because we wanted a lot of people to read it.

But also the Genesis of the volume came out of these national endowment for the humanities programs that were aimed at K through 12 teachers. And so what I would like to see ideally is that the impact of this volume over time will be a shifting of perception about the undergraduate. So that people who are educators at any level will start to change their pedagogical material to include a substantial component of maritime escapes and the underground.

So I'd like to see as a result of this, uh, the development of a lot of new pedagogical material at the university level and at high school and middle school and even potentially primary school. So that the units that they teach will include the maritime side. But of course, the other thing that any researcher wants, this is very consciously a kind of cutting edge book that makes some statements that are very much novel in the context of underground railroad stuff.

We would like to see new research come out of. We'd like to see people take that as a point of departure and look more closely at some of the questions that we posed and maybe look more closely at some of the geographic regions we talked about. We would like to see folks look more closely at interior waterways and really study.

The hypothesis of just how many people might've been able to escape up the Mississippi and up the Ohio river and how they might've done that. And other places that were left out by the way, there were geographic regions that we couldn't cover because we just didn't have enough space, but southward from say, Georgia to Florida, and then into the Caribbean, that would have been an option because any of the European colonies in the Caribbean would have had slavery outlawed prior to the civil war with some exceptions, but also leaving.

It's through the Gulf of Mexico down to Mexico, Mexico was a three-state by the 1830s and slave we're getting an out wall. And so we didn't really look at that also Mexico parameter of the story. And I'd like to see someone do that.

Jim Ambuske: I always like edited collections of essays because they do exactly what you just described.

They are a tool for advancing particular areas of pedagogy, but they're also designed to poke the bear and to get people thinking about what has not been done and what needs to be done. And it sounds like you've got some concrete ideas.

Timothy D. Walker: We were planning of a book launch conference in new Bedford in late summer, 2021.

We've now postponed that to next year. But what we'd like to do is get the word out to a lot of scholars who are thinking about this and invite them to come. We want to make this a showcase for most of the contributors to the volume, but then have discussions that will open this up and really kind of explore and ask penetrating questions about what we left out and what we might've done better and things that we didn't.

I look for that to be happening sometime in late August or early September of 2022.

Jim Ambuske: That sounds terrific. Well, let us know when that is. We can help spread the word for you.

Timothy D. Walker: Absolutely

Jim Ambuske: more conversations after the break.

Hi friends. Did you know that the center for digital history also produces live stream interviews with some of your favorite authors head over to www.mountainvernon.org/gw digital talks to watch our past programs and register for upcoming events.

We hope to see you online soon. And now back to the show.

What book you reading right now?

Timothy D. Walker: The underground railroad material was really a departure for me academically. And as you may know, my main research fields really focused on early modern Europe and specifically on the Portuguese overseas colonial effort.

And so the books that I'm engaged in right now is a brand new volume that just came out from some colleagues of mine in Lisbon, Hélder Carvalhal, André Murteira, and Roger Lee de Jesus or Jesus. Their book is, is an edited volume called The First world Empire: Portugal, War, and the Military Revolution. And it looks at early modern, which is colonization from a military perspective about how they managed it.

with such meager human resources, which was a very small country, but it focuses on the 15th, 16th and 17th century.

Jim Ambuske: So I'll check that out cause I'm pretty interested in the Portuguese.

Timothy D. Walker: Well, they have the good sense to, to publish it in English. You know, a lot of very, very good Portuguese historiography is published only in Portuguese, which relatively few people in the Anglophone world read.

And so happily, this one is.

Jim Ambuske: Who's the author you most admire.

So I thought a little bit about this. Um, I would have to go with, uh, with Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell. I started reading more well when I was really young and he taught me a lot about writing. And when I think about Orwell, I think about precision of use of speech concision saying really poignant and pointed things with very few words.

And also incisiveness. I mean, he had an eye for cutting through a situation and describing it in very clear terms. This kind of trading analysis with an economy of words is what I think of when I think of more, what I can say with certainty that I don't usually meet the high bar that he set with my own writing, but it's certainly something that I strive to, but

it's good to have models to aspire to.

What is the most exciting document you've discovered in the archive? I

Timothy D. Walker: So I don't know if I can narrow it down to a single document, but working, working on a big project about medicine in the early modern world, in the circulation of medical knowledge, in the Portuguese colonial sphere. And one of the great things about that is you get to work in really interesting archives in various parts of the world, working in archives in India.

And in Rome, the Jesuit archives and in Rio de Janeiro and in Paris, I uncovered very early Jesuits medical recipe handbooks. The Jesuit missionaries will collecting in manuscripts from the various places they were working in various parts of the world. And this all comes together in the final manuscript from 1766, which is held in the Jesuit archive in Rome.

Which is a compilation that shows that they're blending and mixing medical ideas about healing and the substances that they're using, that they're collecting from India, from the Amazon, from Africa, from China. And they're putting them together in recipes that they very carefully guarded [00:35:00]because they knew how valuable.

Jessica was for making a lot of money from selling medicines in the various places where they were practicing their evangelizing activities. And so this one document from 1766, which includes a lot of material from earlier documents about medical knowledge from different indigenous peoples. That's probably the most exciting thing I've had my hands and it's massive.

It's probably 300 pages of medical.

Jim Ambuske: Wow. That sounds fantastic.

Timothy D. Walker: Yeah, it's very, very exciting. I may have disturbed my fellow readers in the reading room when I first got it it by making little noises and excited.

Jim Ambuske: I think we've all done. That where something, you find something you didn't expect and you get shushed by the librarian because you've said something aloud.

Timothy D. Walker: You know, just as a side to that. Um, I talk about all these archives that I've had the during very good fortune to work in. Um, but where I live in new Bedford is, is a Stone's throw just a few minutes, walk from the biggest collections of whaling log books in the world, but the new Bedford whaling museum and at the new Bedford free public library, you know, together.

Half of the Yankee whaling logs in the United States are kept just very, very close to where I live. And so it should come as no surprise that I turned my attention to some of those caches of documentation when we started doing this project.

Jim Ambuske: Well, tell us a little bit about that. What kind of evidence are you finding in the log book?

I have a side project, I should say a parallel project. That is, um,

how many projects do you have? Oh my gosh,

Timothy D. Walker: that there's a funny meme going around on the internet and you've probably seen it where you people start a new project and then you get excited about it. Then you go on and you think about the next.

Yeah, I'm guilty of that, but ones that are actually actively being funded and moving towards publication. This one is a pretty solid one. This parallel project, because I started thinking maybe five or six years ago that there was a lot of material in these log books that could be scientifically. For people who study weather over the long duration and people who do climate model.

And so I'm where I live in Massachusetts. I'm not very far from woods hole, oceanographic institution, just across Buzzard's bay, from new Bedford. Right. I have a colleague at woods hole. Uh, her name is Caroline and an ocean scientist, and I'm paleo climatologists. She and I are working on a project where we're gathering data from daily log book entries from whaling log books that go all over the world.

Whaling ships follow their prey, the whales into some of the most remote and least visited parts of all the oceans that go into the mid Pacific. They go into the south Atlantic, into the Arctic south Indian ocean, and they go where merchant ships and military ships don't go. And so the weather data that they contain, these log books and every day from they would give their position at.

And they would give at least three times a day, typically the wind speed, wind direction, precipitation, maybe a comment about the temperature and all of this weather data, which is locked up in these manuscript blog books. Most of which are not digitized is a gold mine for climate scientists. And so myself and a couple of other researchers are feeding data to our colleagues at.

And we're expanding the project to, to include vessels from the Dutch east India company and the Portuguese merchant ships that were going out to the Indian ocean for the Portuguese Eastern empire. And so we have plans to really vacuum up a lot of data from ship log books, going back three or 400 years if we include the colonial vessels too.

Jim Ambuske: That's awesome.

Timothy D. Walker: It's a lot of fun and it's. It's also very time consuming and it requires a fair amount of funding. So we were fortunate to get some money from the national science foundation and we've gotten some nice funding from some private foundations too. So this is an entire different type of research than what I'm used to doing in the humanity.

So once you start working with the scientists, they know where to go for larger amounts of money.

Jim Ambuske: Got to fund those labs

Timothy D. Walker: to put it mildly.

Jim Ambuske: Well, finally, how do you hope people remember your work?

Timothy D. Walker: You know, I really hope that, and we thought this from the beginning, we really want. This sailing to freedom book to be a major rethinking, a fundamental rethinking of the underground railroad to think of it, not just as a terrestrial phenomenon, but as something that people who were striving for freedom on the coast were doing in large numbers to escape.

And the other thing about this is that it really puts the focus on the fugitives, the freedom seeking person, because it's their own skills. That they've won through their labor on waterfronts in the south that allows them to do this. And so if you think about the question of agency, this focus on the maritime side of the underground, where I wrote tends to put the agency right in the hands of the people who are choosing to flee enslavement and seek freedom in the war.

I hope that those major points will become a much more front and center. Part of the underground story.

Jim Ambuske: Tim, this has been a pleasure. I learned a lot. Thanks so much for joining.

Timothy D. Walker: This has been great, and I'm really grateful for the opportunity to talk about the book and to, uh, to get the word out on it.

And thank you very much for the opportunity to do that.

Timothy D. WalkerProfile Photo

Timothy D. Walker


Timothy D. Walker (B.A., Hiram College, 1986; M.A., Ph.D., Boston University, 2001) is Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where he serves on the Executive Board of the Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture. He is a scholar of maritime history, colonial overseas expansion, and trans-oceanic slave trading, and is an Affiliated Researcher of the Centro de História d'Aquém e d'Além-Mar (CHAM); Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Portugal. Walker was a visiting professor at the Universidade Aberta in Lisbon (1994-2003) and at Brown University (2010). He is the recipient of a Fulbright dissertation fellowship to Portugal (1996-1997), a doctoral research fellowship from the Portuguese Camões Institute (1995-1996), and a NEH-funded American Institute for Indian Studies Professional Development Grant for post-doctoral work in Goa, India (2000-2002). Walker has also been named a fellow of the Portuguese Orient Foundation (Fundação Oriente), the Luso-American Development Foundation (2003 & 2008), and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (2010-2011). In 2018 Walker was appointed a Guest Investigator of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, drawing historic climate data from archived whaling logbooks, Portuguese colonial, and other maritime documentation. He has taught maritime history aboard numerous traditionally-rigged sailing vessels, is a contributing faculty member of the Munson Institute of Maritime Studies, and Director of the NEH “Landmarks in American History” workshops series, titled “Sailing to Freedom: New Bedford and the Underground Railroad” (2011–2022). He has taught maritime history aboard numerous traditionally-rigged sailing vessels, including the schooners Ernestina/Morrissey and Lettie G. Howard, the brig Niagara, and the ship “H.M.S.” Rose.